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Thursday, 1 February 2018

Brier2018 Playdowns

#BetweenTheSheets: Road To Regina
Men's playdown pressure packs the ice across the country



"The Queen City".  The capital of Saskatchewan.  The home city of the Saskatchewan Roughriders.  The homeland for curling legend Sandra Schmirler.  And the original upraising for #TwineTime!  Oh yes, many great people bleed the green of Saskatchewan and call the City of Regina their home.  And from March 3 - 11, the best curlers from around our great nation will call Regina their temporary home as well when they arrive to compete in the 2018 Tim Hortons Brier!

Everyone is well aware of the new format this year, moving away from a single round robin and playing a dual round robin mini-pool with the top four teams advancing to the championship pool for a shot at the title.  We also see the increase to a 16-team field with all 3 territories having equal representation, in addition to the traditional Northern Ontario representation and relatively new Team Canada entry.  And of course the addition of the (controversial?!) Team Wild Card!  But more on that below....

Before we can even break down the format and discuss what will go down in the Brandt Centre at the beginning of March, we first need to fill out the field right?  Well this weekend will surely do so with six provincial championships hitting the ice to slide down the #RoadtoRegina.

While a vast majority of provincial playdowns will take place this upcoming weekend, a few tickets to Regina have already been claimed across the country.  Here are the teams already preparing for Brier competition based on winning their provincial/territorial championship earlier this month (or last year in the case of one):

Team Canada - Brad Gushue (NL)
Yukon - Thomas Scoffin
Nunavut - Dave St. Louis
Nova Scotia - Jamie Murphy
PEI - Eddie MacKenzie

Already this Brier is shaping up to be full of experience.  Gushue, Murphy and MacKenzie will bring years of experience to this ice looking to continue the Atlantic Canada movement we saw with the junior women at the Canadian championships as well with the results we are seeing, to this date at least, at the Scotties.  Scoffin may be competing in his rookie Brier but he is no stranger to the national stage having competed at seven Canadian Junior Curling Championships (six as Team Yukon, one as Team Alberta) and he will be joined by experienced players Tom Appelman and Wade Scoffin.

The other big storyline is we will have TWO teams from The Rock competing in Regina.  Team Gushue's win last season at home was a blessing for his home province competition as it meant this year's NL Tankard event really is wide open for the taking and will end the 11 consecutive year (and 14 of 15) NL championship run for Gushue.  Teams have regularly entered, competed and lost out to The Goo on a consistent basis but with his direct entry this year all the teams on The Rock are salivating at their opportunity.  The pressure to knock off Gushue at provincials may be gone but there is a new sense of pressure as well.  For the teams competing, this may just be their best (and for some only or last) chance at reaching the Brier field.  The big question will be who can take advantage of the wide open door to Regina?

As we know, teams competing this weekend who come up on the wrong side of the curling rock could have a second chance awaiting them.  As Manitoba's Kerri Einarson is discovering in Penticton, the Team Wild Card spot could be a blessing in disguise if you can survive the play-in game.  For the history-making first #TeamWC at the Brier, we can pretty much pencil in a #BuffaloBattle for the final spot.  The two teams invited to the play-in game will be the top two teams on the Canadian Team Ranking System (CTRS) standings who did not win their provincial championship.  With Kevin Koe ranked #2 and ineligible as well as Brad Gushue #3 and ineligible (both already have #TeamCanada responsibilities in Korea and Regina), the remaining teams in the Top 5 are all from Manitoba.  Mike McEwen currently holds the #1 spot, meaning win or lose this weekend, he is guaranteed a spot in Regina either wearing the Buffalo himself or competing on Friday night.  Provincial rivals Jason Gunnlaugson and Reid Carruthers hold spots #4 and #5 meaning both have a solid shot at the play-in game.  Should one of these three prove victorious in Winkler, the other two will advance to the play-in game.  Carruthers may feel a tad bit more pressure in that if he doesn't win, he will be cheering hard for McEwen or Gunnlaugson to win.  Should a #TeamUpset emerge from Manitoba, McEwen and Gunner would advance and Carruthers could be left on the outside of the sheet.  Certainly adds a bit more intrigue to the Manitoba playdowns this weekend!

Speaking about those playdowns, lets get to the meat and potatoes (sorry Geoff Walker and Brett Gallant, didn't mean to steal your nickname thunder there) of the competition on the ice across the country...literally!  

Slide on out rock heads, here are your event previews and predictions:

Tim Hortons Brier Provincial Playdowns


British Columbia

Parksville, BC

2017 Champion:  Team Cotter

Format:  12 team triple knockout with 4 qualifiers advancing to Page Playoff.

Favourite:  Defending champion Jim Cotter will arrive in Parksville as the favourite but with a small line-up change.  With John Morris preparing for the mixed doubles debut on the Olympic stage, Team Cotter had to juggle the line-up a bit in a bid to his 8th Brier.  But the change is not going to be too unfamiliar.  Catlin Schneider joined the team at the end of last season and will move up to the vice position, a position he played at last year's Brier with Team Casey (Saskatchewan) and was voted 1st Team All-Star.  Tyrel Griffith will move up to second and Rick Sawatsky will return to the line-up as lead.  We know what JohnnyMo can bring to a team and his experience cannot be fully replaced; however, these guys know one another and have played together for years.  Schneider (a #TwineTime fam member remember) proved last year he is a major up and comer heading into the next Olympic cycle.  Sure Cotter has a sub-.500 record on the season (16-25) and went through a dreadful #gsoc losing streak (11 straight and 14 of 15 losses) but Cotter always seems ready to defend the ice at the BC provs.  Cotter will attempt the #5peat this week and looks to still be the class of the BC field.

Watch Out For:  Don't just pencil Cotter into the Regina field quite yet though...especially if Dean Joanisse has anything to say about it.  Joanisse has been to two Brier's in his career (2001, 2007) but the 10+ years since his last appearance are starting to weigh on the team.  Team Joanisse has, unquestionably, been the second best team in BC for the past few seasons.  They have been to the BC final in the past and have come oh so close to making the Brier field.  The team has a modest 20-17 record on the season and have reached a #wct final this season....although it was at the season opening event in September.  The big factor for them is they play a ton of events in BC meaning they will be familiar with all the teams they will face this week.  The experience factor alone gives them a leg up early on....but the clock is ticking!  Plus we would like to see #TwineTime fam and Team Joanisse lead John Cullen make a Brier field!!

#TeamUpset:  There are a few teams who will be looking to give the top two teams a run for their money this week.  Sean Geall is a two-time BC champ (2009, 2013) and is back looking for his third Brier appearance.  Geall is 17-12 this season and recently reached the SF (l. McEwen) at the Golden Wrench Classic in Arizona.  Also watch out for three-time Brier participant (1998, 2000, 2009) Brent Pierce.  Pierce should be a familiar name to curling fans, having won the 2000 Brier with Team McAulay (a final I was in attendance for btw).  Pierce has qualified in 3 of 4 events this season too.  But if you want a true #TeamUpset to root for, fix your eyes on Jason Montgomery folks.  Montgomery has played 1 tour event and won the title (Abbotsford Cashspiel) knocking off Joanisse, Pierce and Geall in the playoffs.  They are 8-1 on the season with their only loss being to Joanisse early on in Abbotsford.  They could be the perfect dark horse.

Qualifiers:  Team Cotter, Team Geall, Team Joanisse, Team Montgomery

BC Championship:  Team Cotter def. Team Joanisse


Alberta

Spruce Grove, AB

2017 Champion:  Team Bottcher

Format:  12 team triple knockout with 4 qualifiers advancing to Page Playoff.

Favourite:  Heading into the season everyone tabbed Kevin Koe as the favourite to win Alberta this season.  However, Koe had bigger plans representing Team Canada....he wanted to take his game to the Olympic stage and when he won the Olympic trials the AB race was on once again.  Last year Brendan Bottcher capitalized on Koe not being there (as he was already at the Brier as Team Canada remember) and won his first AB title.  This season he comes to Spruce Grove as defending champion, a different kind of pressure.  Bottcher has had a pretty solid season, including a strong showing at the trials in Ottawa after qualifying out of the pre-trials in Summerside.  They are 37-18 on the season and have two #wct titles to their credit (Medicine Hat, Red Deer).  The union of Bottcher and Darren Moulding seems to be a positive pairing and the team looks like a strong favourite to punch their ticket to Regina.

Watch Out For:  Is time starting to slip away on Charley Thomas?  The two-time Canadian and World junior champ has long been dubbed a player who is capable of great things entering the men's game but has failed to live up to expectations.  Thomas lost the 2016 Boston Pizza Cup (AB provincials) final to Kevin Koe.  Last year he lost in the SF to Ted Appelman.  Thomas fans (of which #TwineTime is one of) are chomping at the bit to see him play in a Brier.  Thomas has the physical and strategic side of the game to do well but is the psychological side the missing piece to the puzzle?  The addition of Mick Lizmore (who skipped his own team to A, B and C final losses last season) should be a welcome addition but the results have not played out as expected.  Having said that, Thomas has reached the playoff round the past two years and, on talent alone, should always be considered a threat.  Could this finally be his year?

#TeamUpset:  There are a few #TeamUpset contenders in this draw.  Ted Appelman is back looking to build on the finals appearance last year.  He lost Tom Appelman to Yukon this season (Tom will be in Regina as Team Yukon remember) but picked up former Charley Thomas vice Nathan Connolly.  At their last #wct event, Appelman reached the final in Red Deer before losing to provincial rival Bottcher.  Aaron Sluchinski could be the perfect dark horse contender though.  Sluchinski is no slouch to this competition though, having reached the playoff round last year (losing the C-battle PPG to Appelman).  Sluchinski has been on fire this season.  The team boasts a 28-9 record on tour, has qualified in 5 of 6 events and has picked up 2 tour titles (Avonair, Black Diamond).  This could just be their year folks.

Qualifiers:  Team Bottcher, Team Sluchinski, Team Thomas, Team Sturmay

AB Championship:  Team Bottcher def. Team Thomas


Saskatchewan

Estevan, SK

2017 Champion:  Team Casey

Format:  16 team triple knockout with 4 qualifiers advancing to Page Playoff.

Favourite:  This may be a bit of a surprise to some but the defending champ, Team Casey, are listed as the #TwineTime favourite entering the Sask Tankard this year.  Many may think Team Laycock or Team Flasch are the favourites but the defending champs are still a strong contender to defend their title and maybe aren't receiving enough praise.  Lets be honest, Casey's win last year was a huge upset.  When they beat, well actually demolished, Laycock in the championship final (11-3 remember, with a 9-1 lead after 4!!) people were left a bit in awe at what they were seeing.  This season, the under the radar surprise effect should not be there.  Ok sure they lost their All-Star vice in Catlin Schnieder but they did add former junior champ Brock Montgomery this season.  The results for the first half of the season were not strong either, perhaps more about gelling as a new team more than anything who knows?  But look at what they have done recently!  Since the calendar rolled over to 2018 they have competed in 3 events, winning the Sask Tour Championship, reaching the championship final at the US Open and the QF of the Golden Wrench.  They enter this event 13-4 in 2018 and are looking full of confidence and momentum, more than could be said perhaps about their competition.  Give the returning champs the respect they deserve folks and tab them as a favourite to #defendtheice.

Watch Out For:  The 2017 Team Laycock/Team Korte juxtaposition share the Watch Out For spot entering the 2018 championship.  Last season Laycock knocked off Korte in the SF.  But that was the old Laycock and Korte line-ups.  And then the earthquake hit Saskatchewan this season!  Regular Laycock second Colton Flasch left the team and joined up with the Marsh boys from Team Korte.  Steve and the guys made the call to past Manitoba and Canadian junior champ Matt Dunstone to join the squad.  The aftershocks are still being felt.  Flasch started his new season melting the ice with his championship win in Saskatoon and QF appearance in Edmonton.  The pre-trials were a miss with a 2-4 record but the team rebounded with a SF finish in Red Deer and, recently, a QF finish at the US Open.  Former teammates now provincial rivals Laycock have hit a few picks on the ice back to being a top contender.  They have struggled this season, posting a 25-27 record on the season, including the 2-6 record at the Olympic trials in Ottawa.  However, similar to rival Casey above, 2018 has been a rejuvenation of sorts for the boys.  They reached the Sask Tour final (l. to Casey) and the Golden Wrench Classic final (l. to McEwen).  They are 8-3 in 2018 and a six-time Sask champ should never be counted out.  Worth noting Dunstone is now throwing the fourth player brick while Laycock is skipping the games but throwing third.  Remember the winner of this event will become the home team at the Brier and you know Steve and the boys would love this opportunity.

#TeamUpset:  There are many mindfield traps in this triple knockout for the perceived favourites.  Former champions can never be discounted (Scott Bitz, Randy Bryden, Scott Manners as vice for Ryan Deis, Brock Virtue).  The Hartung family has a rich history of putting up strong showings at the provincial championship with Kody Hartung/Josh Heidt back-end combo looking to be a #TeamUpset contender.  And of course keep your eyes on Carl deConinck Smith. Team deCS reached the season opening Tour Challenge Tier II SF and deCS does have experience of making deep playoff runs at this event.

Qualifiers:  Team Laycock, Team Casey, Team Flasch, Team Heidt

SK Championship:  Team Laycock def. Team Casey


Manitoba

Winkler, MB

2017 Champion:  Team McEwen

Format:  Ugh...the most convoluted format.  A 32 team double knockout (yup, double!?) with 8 overall qualifiers (4 A-side, 4 B-side).  The 8 qualifiers advance to a second double knockout (yes, again) with now 4 qualifiers then advancing to a Page Playoff.  Got all there?!?  Like I said..UGH! Note, after opening day of play 4 teams will already be eliminated.  Really?  Again...UGH!

Favourite:  When the Olympic trials final rock came to a stop and Team Koe began the celebration (with the epic Ben Hebert broom toss) my first tweet pronounced Team McEwen as the "way to early" Brier favourite.  Over a month later, I stand by this comment.  I still believe Mikey and the boys are the overall favourites here, even in a strong Manitoba field.  Need the stats for support.  How does this sound?  42-19 season record.  7 of 8 qualifying.  4 SF appearances (including Masters and National #gsoc events).  2 CF appearances, plus the Roar final.  1 tour title (defending the title in Tempe at the Golden Wrench Classic).  A lot of the attention this season has been on defending Brier champ Gushue and now Olympic rep Koe but McEwen has easily been one of the most consistent and strong teams all season.  Those provincial near-miss losses are a distant memory now.  McEwen is aiming for the #3peat in Winkler and will come in with tons of consistency and wearing the Manitoba (and perhaps Brier) favourite label.

Watch Out For:  Well we already know the two teams to watch out for in this field right?  Without question Team Carruthers and Team Gunnlaugson and the biggest challengers to defending champ McEwen.  As mentioned above, both already know they have a strong shot at reaching Regina regardless due to the wild card addition but lets be honest, both want the Buffalo and both want to knock off McEwen to fully earn their spot!  Gunnlaugson has been one of the feel good stories of the season.  Team Gunner won the Tour Challenge Tier II event (in Regina remember, coincidence perhaps or foreshadowing?) and followed that win with another tour win at the Mother Club in Winnipeg.  They have reached the QF in each of the past 3 #gsoc events (Masters, National, Canadian Open) and nestled in a Manitoba Curling Tour Championship win along the way.  We know the curling history of Gunner, from the Russian move to relocation to BC to going back to Manitoba and trying to find his footing with the right team.  Everything is clicking for him this season (he even finally became a #TwineTime fam member) and he could be dangerous this week.  But, as this very blog always states, never count out a previous champ.  Team Carruthers won the Manitoba title in 2015 and has been looking to get back ever since.  This team has consistently stayed at or near the Top 5 in the world for the past few seasons.  They are a modest 36-26 on the season, not their strongest tour season in comparison to the past two years but they have qualified in 7 of 10 events and their struggles were certainly more at the beginning of the season.  The team hopefully has eliminated from their minds the tough disappointment in Ottawa where they lost their last RR game, eliminating them from a possible TB game.  Carruthers has only advanced past the QF in one of those 7 qualified events....but they just happened to go on and win the title (Portage).

#TeamUpset:  The #TeamUpset leading candidates are actually quite strong this year in this field.  Dennis Bohn has had a solid season, including a few #wct championship titles wins at events in Winnipeg.  David Bohn is 22-9 this year and has collected 3 tour titles this year (all held in Winnipeg).  Of course tour vet Willy Lyburn is always a threat, having reached that Tour Challenge Tier II final this year (l. to Gunnlaugson) plus reaching another tour final at an event in Winnipeg in December.  Oh and we certainly cannot forget at Pat Simmons, joining former Canadian junior champs (previously skipped by Matt Dunstone).  Team Simmons has qualified in 6 of 8 events, including QF appearances at the Tour Challenge Tier I and CF runs at the Mother Club and Manitoba Tour championship.  Also last season this team reached the Final 4 of this event, skipped by Jason Gunnlaugson.  But if you want a total #TeamUpset contender to really pull a Buffalo run all over the ice in Winkler, JT Ryan and his junior team should be a team these other contenders are weary about facing.  Ryan is the defending two-time junior provincial champ, reaching a TB in 2017 and losing the SF this year.  This may be a junior team but their record on tour is certainly showing they should not be underestimated as such.  They are 32-18 on the season, qualifying in 7 of 8 events with 4 SF appearances.  They come to Winkler fresh off the Canadian junior championships and have nothing to lose....which makes them VERY dangerous here.

Qualifiers:  Team McEwen, Team Carruthers, Team Gunnlaugson, Team Simmons

MB Championship:  Team McEwen def. Team Gunnlaugson


Ontario

Huntsville, ON

2017 Champion:  Team Howard

Format:  12 team triple knockout with 4 qualifiers advancing to Page Playoff.

Favourite:  Could this FINALLY be John Epping's year?  After McEwen reached the Brier a few years ago, Epping took the title as being the best team in Canada to never have played for a national championship.  Oddly enough, this has not been the best year for Team Epping.  The past two years have yielded better results for him and his team but maybe those higher expectations and better results on tour created an increase of pressure on being labelled the favourite.  This season they are sporting only a 35-31 record.  In comparison, last year they finished 60-42 and the year before they finished 69-36.  The numbers certainly tell a story.  So why are they favourites you ask?  Well, in comparison to the field they are still one of the strongest teams in the province.  They have played A LOT of events, including grand slams and the Roar of the Rings.  Sure the results have not been there but there is something to be said for playing the best of the best week in and week out on tour.  And, to be fair, 2018 has yielded more positive results.  They reached the SF in Tempe at the Golden Wrench Classic and, at the recent Canadian Open, suffered a tough loss in an A-qualifier and then hit the tough 3-game losing streak in B and C-qualifier games to just miss the playoffs.  Could this year be a reversal of fortune and a chance for Team History Channel to rewrite history of their own?

Watch Out For:  Hey Glenn Howard, welcome back.  The two-time defending Ontario champion is back looking for the #3peat and Brier appearance number 18!!  Yup, 18!  Team Howard also happens to be having a pretty solid season on tour.  They own a 26-14 record.  They have qualified in 3 of 5 events.  They have reached 2 finals and they have one tour title to their credit (Oil Heritage Classic in Sarnia).  Sure they started the season slow going 4-9 in their first 3 events but they turned the corner in October and have been playing the consistent Glenn Howard curling we have come to expect.  They also competed at the pre-trials in PEI, losing out in the final qualifier game.  And we cannot forget Howard representing Team Canada in the America's Challenger Series vs. Brazil to qualify our great nation for the upcoming World Championships in Las Vegas.  Howard is a legend in the sport and never can be underestimated.

#TeamUpset:  Here is where it gets interesting.  This Ontario field could be displaying the strongest level of parity we have seen in a few years.  There are numerous teams who could make a playoff push this week and a surprise #TeamUpset emerging with the title at the end of the weekend may not be as big of a shock as people may think.  Sure Epping and Howard are going to be the big names everyone expects to be there at the end but don't sell the farm quite yet.  What about Mark Bice?  Bice competed at the pre-trials and while the end result may not be what they were hoping for the experience of the event could be used as a positive momentum and confidence builder for the teams.  I have been sold on Team Bice for a few years now and this could be the year they make a deep run in Ontario.  But if I had to place my bet on only one #TeamUpset flag bearer in Huntsville, I would perhaps hedge my odds towards Mark Kean.  Kean formed a new team this year joining up with Colin Dow, Brad Kidd and Scott Brandon.  They have a 32-14 record on tour, qualifying in 5 of 7 events, reaching three finals and winning one title (Cookstown).  Remember Kean is also a past Ontario Tankard champion, when he pulled a #TeamUpset win back in 2015.  The argument on Team Kean's record could be they have played only local events; however, who are the teams they have been playing, and beating, this season?  For the most part the same teams they draw up against at this very provincial championship.  Don't sleep on a past champ playing with nothing to lose and having a strong season.  And yes, Mark Kean is a #TwineTime fam member but the numbers don't lie here folks.  They are a dangerous team in a triple knockout format.

Qualifiers:  Team Epping, Team Howard, Team Kean, Team Bice

ON Championship:  Team Kean def. Team Epping


Newfoundland and Labrador

St. Johns, NL

2017 Champion:  Team Gushue

Format:  9 team RR with top three advancing.  First place earning trip to the final with SF winner needing to defeat them twice for title.

Favourite:  When Gushue won the title last year all eyes immediately went to Colin Thomas.  Thomas was instantly dubbed the favourite to win the NL title this season and reach the Brier as the NL champions.  And why not?  Thomas has sure had his share of heartbreak at this event in the past.  Thomas lost the final to Gushue in 2013, 2014 and 2016.  The big question mark is how the team handles the pressure of being the pre-event favourite?  Will the pressure get to them and cost them the perfect opportunity or motivate them to claim the title?  The junior movement is alive and well in this province though as Thomas is a two-time NL junior champ (2011, 2012).

Watch Out For:  Adam Boland also knows about disappointment at this event.  Back in 2016 Boland went 0-5 at the NL Tankard but turned things around last season when he went 3-1 in the RR and advanced to the championship final vs Gushue.  The experience of a strong run last year could be all this team needs to finish one game better this year.  Never count out the defending runner-up.  Also note Boland was the 2013 NL junior champ.

#TeamUpset:  Why not continue with the youth movement right?  How about two-time junior champ (2015, 2016) Greg Smith?  With the field being wide open, this is the ideal time to see a past junior champ lay claim to being the future of NL men's curling behind leader Gushue.  Smith has national championship experience as well.  The biggest question mark for his team is this will be their first men's provincial championship appearance.  Will the rookie's in the field shock us all and claim their first men's title?  Nobody expected the youth movement win in Quebec for the women, why can't we see a similar result in Newfoundland for the men?

Qualifiers:  Team Boland, Team Smith, Team C. Thomas

NL Championship:  Team Smith def. Team Boland


There you have it folks.  We will add six more teams to the #Brier2018 field in Regina by the end of the weekend.  As well, we will know the two teams who will compete in the play-in game for the right to be known as Team Wild Card (basically another Battle of the Buffalo).  Agree?  Disagree?  You know what to do!  Hit up the #TwineTime blog in the comments section, share this preview post with your fellow curling friends and families and debate away on social media.

AND we have the conclusion of the #STOH2018 this weekend in Penticton.  A few favourites are emerging early (Manitoba teams again) but also a few #TeamUpset contenders in the mix (Nova Scotia, Newfoundland!).  Compare your predictions and thoughts to the #TwineTime predictions and our newest fam member special guest Cathlia Ward HERE.

PLUS the 2018 Winter Olympics kick off in PyeongChang, Korea next weekend!  Can you believe we are single digit days away now for the countdown.  I know I am excited and I am sure all of you are as well.  ICYMI, #TwineTime wants to add another level of excitement to the men's and women's #curling competition while also raising some money for a great cause.  Join the #TwineTime Winter Olympic 50/50 Pool where 50% of the participant entry fees will be donated to the Canadian Cerebral Palsy Sports Association.

Full details, including the entry form, can be found HERE!  Please share this pool with anyone you think might be interested in participating.  Your participation can go a long way in helping chase the sport dreams of Canadians living with cerebral palsy.  I personally thank you in advance for either entering the pool itself to help raise funds or even just sharing the opportunity with others who may be interested.